Oregon Tree Climbing: Research, Recreation, and Ecotourism

IMG_5923Please tell me you have climbed a tree at least once in your life. If not, let me tell you—you are certainly missing out. Questions of ancestry aside, we can all agree that humans do indeed resemble apes and it may come as no surprise that we enjoy similar activities. What is a McDonald’s play area or a school jungle gym if not monkey training for kids? Unfortunately most people grow up, become aware of their mortality, and deem climbing trees an unworthy risk to life and limb.

However, some have taken this childhood hobby to the next level and built an entire career on the practice. Tim Kovar, founder of Tree Climbing Planet (TCP) located in Oregon City, has been climbing trees for over three decades and teaching recreational and technical tree climbing for over two. In that time he has served as chief instructor for Tree Climbers International, the first recreational tree climbing organization in the world, located in Atlanta, Georgia. Through Tree Climbers International, Kovar helped develop the standardized curriculum being taught around the world.

Ten years ago, Kovar brought his tree climbing expertise to Oregon where he spent four years working with climbing gear innovators New Tribe, located in Grants Pass. With them, Kovar co-founded the guided climbing company Tree Climbing Northwest before starting TCP, now in its sixth year of operation. Since then Kovar has trained myriad unique individuals, traveled around the world climbing and teaching, and helped develop some much needed alternative income for tropical communities.

Tree Climbing Planet
So what does TCP do exactly?

“We get a variety of different types of students that are interested in learning how to climb trees for a wide range of reasons,” explained Kovar. While some are your traditional environmental enthusiasts, Kovar also trains cinematographers, photographers, arborists, and tree workers, people interested in “vertical hiking and camping,” and even those just looking for inspiration.

Another important aspect is that of the ecotourists.

“We do a lot of international expeditions where we take people down to the Amazon jungle and into Central America and we do all-day climbs in these giant, emergent trees,” said Kovar. As it turns out, these trips are having an important impact on local communities, but more on that later.

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy or wheelchair-bound? TCP finds ways of getting almost anybody into the trees, and doing it safely. “To date, we have put up over 10,000 people worldwide with no accidents—a few rope burns, blisters, and bad haircuts,” said Kovar. Pro tip: If you have long hair, keep it wrapped up lest it get sucked into a friction knot on the way down.

TCP offers a variety of classes for noobs up through training geared for world-class tree climbing instructors. Kovar teaches tree rescue classes, canopy research techniques, and minimalist techniques to increase your connection to the natural world. While one- and two-day classes are available for those looking to learn the basics, TCP offers week-long stints that include camping in the trees. In fact, Kovar was late to the interview because he almost forgot to come back down to earth from his tree boat.

The Decision to Teach
To call professional recreational tree climbing instruction a niche market is a bit of an understatement, so how does one end up in that position? The decision to follow this path was an easy one for Kovar. It all began in Atlanta, Georgia when Kovar was in his fifth year as an arborist. He explained that the whole time he was doing that work, there was a certain tinge of guilt which came to a head one 90° afternoon in Georgia.

Kovar and a partner were blocking a massive tulip poplar. Blocking a tree is the process of ascending to the canopy, removing all limbs, then taking down the trunk in large, manageable chunks. Kovar, who had climbed first and removed all the branches, returned to the ground for a rest and let his partner climb up to begin removing the trunk.

“He hit what we call a water pocket which must have had 20 gallons of water stored inside the trunk of the tree,” explained Kovar. The sound that ensued has stuck with Kovar for the rest of his life. “I heard the tree kind of scream and I looked up and saw all this blood pouring out of the tree, which was the water, and right then it was like, ‘What the heck am I doing?’”

The tree, likely 150 years old, was removed in order to extend the people’s driveway in the backyard. “I was thinking this tree has been here longer than we have been here, it probably would have lasted longer—after we’ve left [this world], as well. Right then, I had to change my attitude for why I am climbing trees.” Within three weeks Kovar made a lifestyle change. He retired the chainsaw and dedicated himself to teaching other people how to climb for other reasons.

“The main goal now is to help to educate people about the environment, the forest, and the trees without preaching about it, but giving them that actual experience to be up in the trees themselves,” said Kovar. “Hopefully that didn’t sound too wu-wu, but it was a pretty intense moment.”

Broader Impacts
According to Mongabay.com, an environmental science and conservation news site, tropical deforestation has reached a rate of about 8 million hectares a year. That is about the state of South Carolina disappearing each year. This should concern you as tropical forests cover only around 8% of total dry land on Earth. Furthermore, temperate forests cannot even hold a candle to the biodiversity found within these tropical wonderlands.

“The canopy is one of the true last frontiers on the planet, especially down in the rainforests,” said Kovar. Obviously monkeys in branches come to mind, but Kovar explains that along with removing the trees themselves, deforestation is killing all the life inside the canopy—the epiphytes and the unique habitats created by the layers upon layers of branches. “The majority of the lifeforms, plant and animal, are up in the tops of trees and we just don’t know what’s actually happening up there.”

Consider that in just one park in Peru, there have been 900 more species of butterfly documented than on the entire European continent. With up to 480 species of tree within a 2.5 mile radius, it should become more salient how little we actually know about these ecosystems. In fact, earlier this month Mongabay.com posted an article in which researchers, using tree climbing techniques to reach the canopy, collected 1,201 records of 24 arboreal mammals. Six of those species were detected only through cameras the team embedded in the canopy.

“Myself, I’m not a scientist, but I work with quite a few of them,” explained Kovar, “so my goal right now is trying to get just the general public aware of what’s happening so they can make those choices about hopefully protecting the environment.” While training researchers and participating on expeditions is part of that mission, Kovar also supports the rainforests through ecotourism.

Often deforestation is attributed to logging activities and urban development. However much of the damage in tropical rainforests is due to agricultural practices. With both small- and large-scale farm holders competing with ranchers for usable land, it is often the common folks and the forest that shoulder the heaviest burdens. Kovar said, “Some of them sell their property just to make money to feed their family for a month, and you can’t blame them for doing that.”

Currently Kovar and TCP are working with groups in Central and South America to create sustainable ecotourism businesses for the locals. Other groups they work with in the Amazon pay landowners a fee to let climbers and tourists climb in remote areas. “The landowners are now really like, ‘Wow, wait, we are getting paid a couple times a year now from tree climbers coming down here versus getting paid one time from a farmer who wants to log and clear-cut their lands,’” said Kovar. The ultimate goal is to make it fun, sustainable for everyone, and educational.

Considering an Oregon Climb?
So now you’re wondering if you should go climb a tree. Kovar recounted a story that illustrates the power of the experience. While working in Georgia, Kovar was leading a group into the trees. He remembers looking up to see “this very right-wing conservative guy sitting next to this liberal hippie chick next to this punk rock kid next to this 75-year-old woman—none of them knew each other before they went up, but once they got up there, they were all just talking and connecting.” For Kovar, it is this unique magic that allows people to just be people and that pulls them together.

Climbing is also a solo activity for the well-practiced. Many people climb for inspiration while others climb for a sort of meditation. There may be no research to back this up, but Kovar suggests that 30 minutes of “tree time” can be like two hours of meditation. Some even set up a tree boat, or hammock for hanging out in trees. These are what TCP students use to camp in the trees during the week-long class.

Think you might not be up to climbing a tree? You may be surprised to hear that Kovar just took a 73-year-old woman up during his last class. Impressive, yes, but wait till you hear that Kovar’s friend took a 101-year-old woman up for her first climb before that. “Climbing in the oak trees, I work with physically challenged folks, and getting them out of wheelchairs and into trees,” said Kovar. In other words, you can climb a tree.

However, once you are ready to climb a big tree, Kovar highly recommends taking a training course. “If you get stuck in the tree—something happens 200 feet in a tall Doug fir tree and you drop your rope—you’re stuck, you can’t really call 911.” As we know here in the Northwest, weather can move in fast, temperatures can drop, and hypothermia can set in before help arrives. Thus learning safety for your own well-being and ways of preventing accidents is key to becoming a responsible climber.

Along with responsibility comes respect. “How do you move within that space of the tree top, so you are not stepping on a moss mat that may have taken 300 years to produce?” contemplates Kovar. Likening climbing in the tops of old growth trees to scuba diving in a coral reef, Kovar attests that one careless kick could shatter a tiny ecosystem. This is yet another important aspect of TCP classes.

Many of Kovar’s students don’t feel the need to reach the tops of the trees. Instead they just hang out in the mid-crown and take in the experience. “We try to think about tree climbing always more as a place to be rather than that thing to do, so that’s kind of the mindset,” explained Kovar. However if having a place to be is a thing you like to do, Kovar explained that after a week-long class, most of his students have the skills and confidence to climb most of the trees around here with the exception of the really big trees like redwoods.

Where to Climb
Finally, if you have all the gear and the know-how, where can you climb? The easiest and most obvious answer is private property, with permission. National parks are completely off limits. Often they have research taking place in the canopy which is easily disturbed. If caught, you will be fined and have your gear confiscated.

While climbing in national forests is allowed, state parks are a little different. It is often up to the rangers whether they will permit it or not. “Just make sure if you get the thumbs up from one of the park rangers, you know when that ranger gets off work so when the next ranger comes in, they don’t make you get out of the trees,” advised Kovar.

Since recreational tree climbing is relatively new, the activity falls into somewhat of a grey area in terms of whether or not it is tolerated. “We hope in the future there will be a little more credentials for people climbing so they are not damaging the trees they are climbing and so it’s safer not only for themselves, but for the trees,” said Kovar.

It is amazing to think that despite all of the scientific research, the cameras and sensors, the tons of gear one could own, ultimately it is just climbing a tree. Just like the primates on National Geographic, we like swinging around in trees, climbing, and walking out on branches to get the best view. Kovar and TCP offer some of the best training around, but they are only one of a growing number of tree climbing trainers and climbing tour guides here in Oregon.

Whether you want to learn the techniques to climb massive redwoods, develop the coolest PhD thesis ever, or learn how to set up a tree boat in your own backyard, there has never been a better time than now. That’s because we like to think of tree climbing as a place to be, not a thing to do. As Kovar put it, “It’s a good place to go up to and be inspired and kind of leave your worldly problems back on Earth.”

Check out The Wild Trees by Richard Preston—Preston was inspired during one of Kovar’s classes in Georgia. He then requested Kovar’s help in learning how to climb redwoods in California…

By Anthony Vitale